There were no warning signs. No special precautions nor alerts for inbound tourists. The one clue suggesting all was not well is that the famous Sunday night fireworks over Victoria Harbour had been cancelled. That’s kind of a big deal.
Experiencing different places, the people who live there and the food they eat is a fascinating aspect of international travel. Finding your way in foreign places awakens the senses and has been known to inspire as much as it informs.
Making your way to and through the immigration counters at Chek Lap Kok airport usually suggests how busy this travel hub, and Asia’s world city is. But not today, an early arrival flight has something to do with it. A lot of it though comes down to the reduced numbers of visitors no matter whether they’re staying for a while or just passing through. They have just read too many headlines and are avoiding the city altogether.
The sun rises late this time of year, the highways to the city are fairly empty in the early morning, particularly as it is a Sunday. There are a number of efficient ways to get to the city and we decided on a car. The hotel management were courteous enough to let us check in upon arrival and we were able to be in the room promptly enough to still watch the sun start making its way across the harbour.
Hong Kong was relinquished to China by the British in 1997. Since then it has pretty much remained a city within one country and governed by a different system. One of the many remnant “systems” of this society’s British past is the tradition of Afternoon Tea. Nowhere else is this more traditional, nor more sought after an experience than at the Peninsula Hotel. A grand old affair. People prepare themselves for a long wait to be seated (and spend big money) at a table during this legendary event.
Scones are an essential foundation for English afternoon tea and served with jam and clotted cream. Clotted cream, I must say conjures up images of watery cream with lumps… nothing could be further from the cream we were presented. Soft, light, consistent and even. You have to try it to understand. The layer above the scones consists of delicious finger sandwiches. Everything is carefully calculated for serving two guests. The top section is for traditional sweets. All made on site. The tea… the Peninsula Hotel classic is Earl Grey, I decided to go with that and it wasn’t a disappointment. Served in silver tea sets with strainers to ensure the tea remained pure in the tea cups – perfect execution. This is a business with very high overheads, a large staff complement with diverse responsibilities, a number of layers of supervision and management and somehow they make it function like a Swiss watch.
Picture the scene, the last Sunday before Christmas on the last year of the decade. This is not any old Afternoon Tea you can catch some other day. The Peninsula Hotel had a theme this year called “Stories from the tree”. For the Afternoon Tea sitting they brought in a choir to sing carols, prior to this and afterwards there was a classical ensemble playing. Wonderful experience. Very privileged. Very civilized.
Once you head out to the street, 50m up from the hotel you can finally spot some proof of riots! First some graffiti, then a statement about freedom, finally a troop of police officers in riot gear. Now we’re going to see some action! But there wasn’t any. In fact, people went about their business and their evening shopping almost unaware of the merry band of 15 or so combat-ready law enforcement officials. Quite surreal really. Now I’m not saying there is no protesting here, just that you’ll find police armed with automatic rifles and some damaged public property in just about any self-respecting European capital city. But in Hong Kong this somehow just stands out so much more as it usually has such a more clean and old British appearance.
Also in contrast to the first-world dining experience of the luxurious Peninsula Hotel is the equally delicious, decadent almost, fare served up for local residents. Put down on sometimes broken plastic chairs and tables in dingy restaurants, is the most delicious pork, goose and beef noodle dishes. Served in broth, drowned in fatty sauce..the doctor definitely would not approve. Luckily there isn’t one around. A cheap place probably run by two or three operators, the food they put out is amazing given their situation. Unlike a normal restaurant their kitchen is smaller than a fishing boat galley and extends into the back alley where I don’t want to think about how their dishes get washed up… but if you close your eyes and just reach over to that dirty container of chopsticks over there…just enjoy what the other half eats.
Tomorrow we’ll push on to another clean and orderly Asian capital city, Singapore.